Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Looking Outward on the 4th, from Frederick Douglass to Robert Jackson to Jimi Hendrix

The Fourth of July should not be simply a day of "introspection, in an easy, comfortable sense of historical gratification," writes the New York Times in an editorial today. Instead it is a day to look outward, and to consider American ideas about rights and freedoms in the context of the world.

Thinking about America and the world requires both a conception of America, and a conception of what this world is that the nation, and its broader conception, is embedded in. As historians, we can see the relationship between America and the world reconfigured in different eras, as the nation and the global context, change. Perhaps we see continuities as well, though they are unlikely to be in any simple embrace, at home or abroad, of the ideas we would most like to imagine are central to the American core.

For Independence Day, here are links to three reflections on America in the world, at different moments of conflict. The first comes from Robert Jackson scholar John Barrett, who provides three episodes in legal history, via his Jackson List, including Jackson's 4th of July address in 1941, as the war closed in. At this link, Barrett writes of these moments:

Attorney General and then-pending Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Jackson’s Fourth of July address in Washington;

in that same year, the Independence Day activities of the newly-appointed Chief Justice of the United States, Harlan Fiske Stone, in Colorado, and of President Franklin Roosevelt in Hyde Park, New York; and

in 1945, in London, the work and the American holiday of Stone’s Supreme Court colleague Justice Jackson, who was serving by appointment of President Truman as United States chief of counsel for the prosecution of German war criminals. (Jackson would, only four days later, make his initial trip to inspect facilities in Nuremberg, in the U.S.-occupied land that had been Germany.)
Jackson's speech reflects on American democracy in a world torn by war. Another American reflected on the nature of American democracy before the outbreak of a different war, in an important 4th of July address. "What, to a slave, is your Fourth of July?" Frederick Douglass asked in 1852. He spoke with admiration about the nation's struggle for independence, but argued that the nation failed to live up to its own principles.

Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day, in the presence of Americans, dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? speaking of it relatively, and positively, negatively, and affirmatively. To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.
Douglass placed American slavery in a global context, and world developments gave him hope:

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work The downfall of slavery. "The arm of the Lord is not shortened," and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are, distinctly heard on the other. The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, "Let there be Light," has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen, in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. "Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God." In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:

God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,
And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom’s reign,
To man his plundered fights again
Restore....
Another engagement with America was seen on the stage near the end of Woodstock in August 1969, in an iconic performance from rock history. It is interesting that Jimi Hendrix, then 26-years-old, would take on the Star Spangled Banner. Although he later claimed that the performance was not intended to be political, we can hear in the chords that this image of America is America divided by war. Hendrix's performance was rejected by many, but spoke to countless numbers in a generation that hoped to end a war and give new meaning to American freedom.



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